A nomad with roots: calling all expats to research the past

Replanting your roots shouldn’t mean losing them

In March 1920, my grandmother lived with her parents and siblings in Jacksonville, FL. They shared a home with the parents and younger brother of A. Philip Randolph. She was attending Boylan-Haven School for Girls, a private school for Black girls that Zora Neale Hurston attended about 20 years earlier (and coincidentally my Mom would attend years later). She had just turned 12. Her mother had just died.

Her mother’s death was most likely a significant factor, but not the only reason for her father’s difficult decision to migrate north – just a few years before his own death in 1926. My grandmother and her family left behind the remarkable life they established in Jacksonville and moved to Philadelphia, PA.

Florida East Coast Railway station - Fort Pierce.Photo courtesy:  State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/798

Florida East Coast Railway station – Fort Pierce. Photo courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/798

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A story

I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed by all there is to do in order to be where, what, and who I want to be. And strangely, the feelings of anxiety have become more pronounced as the plan becomes more clear. Now that I know happiness is attainable, and it’s actually all under my control…well, it seems like a lot more pressure.  As the universe seems to declare, “sure, you can have whatever you want,” all I seem to say is, “but wait, you want me to do what first?” That looks like a whole lot of scary work ahead.

In the midst of one of my more unproductive and (somewhat) irrationally overwhelmed times, I stood on a NYC subway platform.  Transferring from the C to the A, I was headed to the airport – back to Amsterdam.  In my mind I listed the number of things I needed to get done approximately weeks ago, preoccupied by creeping self-doubt.   When I briefly returned to the present, I took inventory: suitcase, laptop bag, something’s missing.  My leather jacket. My most favorite.

That sinking feeling when you realize something is lost – some/anywhere in NYC. It hurt. I briefly attempted to acquire some sympathy from two ladies standing beside me by sadly declaring, “I just lost my jacket.” They kindly obliged with sighs and looks of pity. As I stood there with a big ‘ole suitcase and various other bags strapped to me, I had no option to go back and retrace my steps. We all knew that jacket was long gone. So I began working on getting over it. It’s just a jacket. I probably wore it too often anyway. Perhaps its replacement will bring me even more joy.

During the following (excessively) long train ride, I kept thinking of the stairway at the first train station.  Although I hadn’t been paying attention, and I had no idea the jacket had fallen, I felt strangely certain of when it must have happened.  A glimmer of hope remained with my friends who would follow me to Amsterdam just a couple of hours later.  Perhaps I could catch them in time, get them to follow the route I had taken, and maybe they would even find the jacket at the station.  A laughable long-shot. Grasping at straws might make the recovery period worse. But it’s worth a try.

I arrived at the airport about 10 minutes after my (typically timely) friends planned to leave, after anxiously watching the clock tick away on the super-duper slow air train shuttle-thing. If I missed them, it’d be over. Without a U.S. cell phone, I asked the security woman taking bags where I could find a pay phone.  I would have to go far, to the other side of the large airport area. “Or, you could just use my phone.” Seriously? “Why look for a pay phone when you could use this?” Exactly.

Several hours and an Atlantic Ocean later, as I expected, Amsterdam was cold and drizzly.  I wore only a sweatshirt that was insufficient and also seemed to regret my careless disregard of layering and, well, decency.  This discomfort marked the beginning of a new life without my leather jacket. And, considering the circumstances, I think I was coping quite well with the unexpected hardship. Too many other things are competing to cause me worry. A well-liked, but forever lost leather jacket cannot be one of them.

Two hours later, I met my jet-lagged, weary, and appropriately-dressed friends at Centraal Station.  We exchanged hugs and stories of our respective overnight flights.  Leading them to my place, it was pretty clear the glimmer of hope I had maintained was no longer.  With the intention of sparing my feelings, they didn’t even bring it up. But I needed to close the chapter. “So…you guys didn’t find the jacket, huh?”

“Oh no, sorry.” Sad faces. Agreement that it was a long-shot and reassurance that they tried.

How incredible it would have been if they had found the jacket. This would have meant a kind someone had picked it up and handed it to the station attendant. And my friends, who I narrowly caught on their way out the door, would have followed shortly after to retrieve it from likely the same attendant I had earlier asked to buzz the door open for me. And these friends also just so happened to be on their way to Amsterdam, reuniting me with the completely lost jacket in just a few short hours. How charming of a scenario that –

“Dana, we tried to pretend for as long as we could. But, we actually found your jacket.”

A bag unzipped. And emerged the forever and completely lost red, vintage, most favorite, leather jacket. My already loved friends became heroes. Heroes.

But what are the chances? The question kept coming to mind. The strong feeling about where I dropped it, the kind person who handed it in, the security lady with the cell phone, my friends and their plane, the timing, all of it seems so unlikely, even as individual scenarios.

Getting to some kind of point: I believe in signs. And this sure felt like one. As if I received some direct communication from someone or something that knows more, and perhaps knows why.  It’s a sign of what, I’m not sure. But strange things seem to happen more often these days. And I suspect that’s because I’ve finally started listening. Paying attention and listening. And with this, I’m making no exception. That leather jacket was not lost and found in vain.

Forget the doubt. Do the work. Trust the process. You’ll get what you want, dammit.

(spirit speaks to me with sass)

The Hair Chop: So Fresh, So Clean

After almost 16 years, and all of my adult life, I decided it was time for a change of hair.  It’s kind of like saying a change of lifestyle, or a change of philosophy.  More than just a hairstyle, this type of change seemed to carry some weight.  Because, for a number of reasons, growing locs is a big deal.  But once I could no longer remember exactly what those reasons were for me, the decision to cut my hair was no longer a matter of if, but when.

I actually decided before I moved to Amsterdam.  I was about to make yet another move to an unfamiliar setting, turning my life upside down yet again for yet again uncertain outcomes.  But this move had to be different.  I didn’t want it to be only a change of location and circumstances.  Because as I’ve experienced, those don’t tend to stick.  And in my effort to seek circumstantial and personal happiness (which is what we’re all essentially doing, right?), I had to think about what could potentially leave me stuck in an old place.  My hair?  Yeah, maybe.

For a long time, my locs grew with me.  I was changing, growing, learning, experiencing.  And I felt like they reflected me through all of that.  As they grew longer, they not only represented the years of commitment I had made, but also the years of life I had been living – good and bad.  Happiness, sadness, whatever.  I appeared to be a slight variation of the same person.  Growth meant change.

Although I’m normally weird about putting my face on the blog, I figured I would indulge for this purpose…

high school

A couple of years ago I wanted it to stop growing.  I was beginning to (literally) sit on my locs.  And it felt like too much hair.  Like I was holding onto it for too long.  Why did I have to carry around all of this growth all of the time?  The good and the bad all of the time.  The happiness and the sadness all the time.  They still represented who I was, and who I, and perhaps others, expected me to be.  But my locs began to feel like a subtle burden – though only noticeable when I was paying attention.  So I cut off 9 inches at that point.  I wasn’t ready to let them go altogether.  But I had to make it bearable.

When moving this time, I didn’t want to feel stuck in an old place.  This was a good excuse for something new, my hair included among many things.  I would do it when I was comfortable in the new place.

last night out

I waited until May, when the weather was nice, my apartment was comfortably furnished, and I was confident in school.  I picked a day that felt right.  Leading up to it, I wore my hair out every day (dramatic, perhaps).  I bought a pair of scissors.  And I stocked up on experimental hair supplies that I hoped would help me comb out some hair (going on the advice of my sister and a local friend who have done the same).  On the big night, May 13th, I treated myself to some ice cream and wine.  And then I cut off about two-thirds of my locs.

chop

The process wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be.  I thought I might cry (I cry when I’m hungry – why wouldn’t I cry over this?).  Or I thought I’d have some deep philosophical revelation about the significance of something.  But I didn’t do any of that.

no longer attached

I did, however, have immediate regrets.  Not the deep kind – the shallow kind.  The “oh my goodness, I’m hideous” kind of regrets.  I didn’t know what I would look like without locs.  But I was pretty sure it was hideous.  So yeah, not the profound reaction I’d like to say I had.

Hideous or not, there was no going back.  I worked on it every day for the next 7 weeks, wearing hats and wraps whenever I went outside.  I usually left out a few locs to deceive people – but no one noticed either way.  Through all of the final paper writing and break-times, I was plucking away at my hair, loosening up locs, and slowly revealing my free hair.  I finished the last one on Thursday night.  It was just a relief to be finished with the process, which was stripped of any emotional ties after the first night.

finished

Going outside for the first time with an exposed afro felt strange.  I wondered if people would react to me differently.  And they have.  I’m not yet ready to explain in what way it’s different.  But something is different.

My shadow is certainly different.  And my reflection is new.  It feels good.  A fresh and clean beginning.

Black Girl Gone Back to Africa

This revelation about my ancestry is coming sooner than expected.  On Saturday I did some research at the Schomburg in Harlem. I was only there for about 1.5 hours. I spent at least ten minutes of that time shaking and in tears…the super duper happy kind. Back to Africa kind of happy.

I went with a focused mission. In an attempt to tie up some loose ends before heading south, I wanted to take a look at a book my great grandfather, Charles Sumner Long (my mother’s paternal grandfather), wrote back in 1939. Since he and his father were both prominent leaders in the A.M.E. Church in Florida, it makes sense that the book is about the history of the church. I recently purchased and read a book about this same history, which made numerous references to Charles’ father, Thomas Warren Long. I have also come across numerous references to Charles’ book. But unfortunately, it’s no longer in print and can now only be found on microfiche. Hence my trip to the Schomburg.

My expectations weren’t too high. I suspected the book would carry a neutral tone and as the author, Charles wouldn’t go into much detail about his family. So when I saw a photo of Charles on one of the first pages (I had never seen his image before), I was satisfied and felt my 1.25 hour-long trip to Harlem was worthwhile.

I set myself up with a well-funded copy card, prepared to print any page that made reference to anyone with the last name Long. I scrolled through the book, zooming, straightening and focusing the film almost obsessively. I printed various pages with tidbits about Charles and his father’s role in the establishment of numerous churches in Florida. Somewhere in the middle of the book, between two chapters about a black bishop and a black politician, Charles wrote a brief chapter about his (and my) family history. I started crying as soon as I read, “He was the slave of John Roberts…” It felt like striking genealogy gold.

Here’s what I read:

Can this even be real?!  He dumped so much information on my lap that it took me some time to process. In all honesty, after I printed the page, I had to put it out of my mind just to regain the capacity to get through the rest of the book. And not until I left the library did I fully digest exactly what I had learned about James Long, as well as Thomas (though I already had a small bit of his story). I’m still digesting it, really.

First of all, most people assume that if their ancestors survived the slave trade, they came from the west coast of Africa.  And since the Zulus are from southern Africa, not many people are even aware they fell victim to slave traders.  But it happened, and apparently not so infrequently.  According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1783 and 1825, 25,477 were taken from southeastern Africa to Cuba alone, (21,038 disembarked).  Although his circumstances were less common, my third great grandfather certainly wasn’t alone.

The Spanish trade to Havana, Cuba started in 1789, which is perhaps right before the time James would have arrived.  And apparently Matanzas was big on sugar production.  So I can make the assumption that James was working on a sugar plantation.  Beyond that, I can’t even begin to imagine what he experienced.  An entirely new area for research has opened up.

Although I have found an African ancestor, which for many would be the jackpot that brings such a project to a close, there is so much more work to be done.  I need to catch up on these areas of history that I previously had no idea related to me.  As far as the Longs, there is one big, gaping hole in the story. If James purchased his freedom in Cuba and moved to Florida, under what circumstances did his son come to be enslaved? Was he also re-captured into slavery after moving to Florida? And was his wife enslaved as well? I’ll need to do some research on this John Roberts character in Jacksonville. Perhaps details about his plantation will direct me to the details that will fill in these gaps.

And speaking of traveling (was I at some point?), these new insights have added at least two more trips to my agenda, keeping in mind my agenda has become more of a long-term thing.  Cuba (Matanzas in particular) and Mozambique, since it seems the most common route from southeastern Africa to Cuba was from Mozambique to Havana. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.  But who knows what kind of records of the trade they kept  in either Mozambique or Havana?  I may be getting greedy, but I think I might have a chance to learn James Long’s African name.

The Life List

Vacation in Mexico was enjoyable. It was great to be out of NYC and winter weather, even if just for a short time.

Prior to leaving for vacation, I was inspired by one of the newer reality shows on MTV (honestly, I watch most of them…but few of them actually inspire me), the Buried Life. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a group of white guys who travel the country in an RV, accomplishing everything they’ve previously decided they want to do before they die. Some people refer to a list of such tasks as a “bucket list” (what you want to do before you “kick the bucket”). I didn’t see the movie by that name and I’m not particularly fond of the whole bucket reference. So while I was inspired by the MTV show, I decided to create my own before-i-die list and call it a “life list.”

I put a lot of thought into my life list while I was in Mexico. And when I returned home, I actually wrote the list on paper. As we all know, once something is written on paper (in ink), it’s official. Official, but not complete. I plan to add to the list as new ideas come up. Perhaps I’ll eventually need to factor another person into these plans or I’ll simply discover brand new dreams. For now, I have 17 tasks on my life list. I figured I’d share a few:

*Meet Oprah Winfrey and respond to a question she asks me. I don’t know many people who would turn down an opportunity to meet Oprah. I thought for many years that at some point she would interview me on her show about something amazing I had accomplished. But now that she has announced this looming 2011 end date, the dream of sitting on that stage has fizzled. She simply isn’t giving me enough time to accomplish that amazing something. So instead, I am willing to settle for a brief encounter, during which she may ask me something as simple as “what time is it?” or “are you the one who slipped past my security?” As long as our meeting consists of Oprah asking me a question and expecting an answer, I will be satisfied.

*Experience genuine, authentic, romantic love. I have said “I love you” in several relationships (okay, four). I believed I was in love each time. But I also knew I was only capable of being in love to the extent that I understood what that meant. And my understanding of love has changed over time. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still not sure I’ll recognize the real thing when I experience it. But I can say, with relative confidence, that I have yet to say the ever so important three words with any sort of accuracy or legitimacy. I feel confident that I will one day.

*Drive across the country (in either direction). This is just one of those classic things you have to do at least once. For all the time I spend on planes, one might think I had experienced more of this country. But my domestic travel experience is not so impressive. And since I don’t need to spend tons of time in most of those states in the middle, driving through should be sufficient. Both times I changed coasts (Philly to Oakland then Oakland to Brooklyn), I planned to drive. And both times the plan changed for practical reasons. I would prefer to make the trip under more leisurely, less stressful circumstances anyway. And although taking a vacation alone is another item on my life list, I wouldn’t want the cross country drive to be the alone vacation. I think this one would be best shared.

* Take an international vacation alone. I spend tons of time alone. And fortunately, I enjoy my own company. So that’s not a bad thing at all. But being alone under certain circumstances can become a personal challenge. Eating in a restaurant, going to the movies, buying a house. Big and small things can feel different when you experience them alone versus with another or several others. I have conquered the restaurant and movie thing many times. And I have taken tons of work trips alone that require solo hotel stays and dining. And I even spent a couple of months in Greece, visiting islands and exploring, most of the time by myself (and I was oh so happy to have visitors during that time). But I have never purchased an international flight and hotel with the intention of going on vacation for and by myself. I don’t feel the need to check this one off the list right away. I’m saving it for a time in my life when I will be seeking an opportunity to appreciate the alone time. I’m sure I’ll know that time when it comes. Hopefully the people in my life at that time will understand.

So there’s a sampling of my life list. So far I don’t have anything too off the wall. The list isn’t for shock value or to compete with other list-makers. It’s just for me. The things that will help me make the most of my time here. And since I’m a master at wasting time, I’m pleased the list is written in ink, official, and putting on the pressure.

Getting Older

My birthday is in a couple of days. Last year I turned 30. Although I was for the most part pleased to have reached this point in adulthood and, quite frankly, just to be alive, I must admit that I experienced a slight emotional crisis at the time.

Throughout my life, all the way through my 29th year, I put so much pressure on who I should be and what I should have accomplished by the time I reached my 30s. Married – or at least with the man I would marry. No children necessarily, but the groundwork for a family should have been laid. Established in my career, with a significant savings adding up. Own some type of property, or at least seeing it as a possibility. And living in a place I considered home. Not very many of those things were accomplished on the day before my 30th birthday. I’m lying. None of those things were accomplished. Not even close.

Let’s just say I was experiencing perpetual singledom, it having been 3 or 4 years since I had been in a relationship (depending on how/who you count). The angst of living in NYC had already emerged, so I knew I wouldn’t be staying forever. Not too long before, I realized that my job was not my career – great job and a career for some, but not my career. And savings? Not even worth mentioning.

Due to the (somewhat inexplicable) pressure I had put on myself, I reached 30 feeling like I was failing, not doing the whole life thing right. I wasn’t getting what I thought I wanted. And instead of simply revisiting and revising the goals I set, I punished myself. I was dreading my birthday, feeling sad and frustrated. The funny thing is that I frequently find myself complaining about overly ambitious goals for my job, questioning why the organization doesn’t take a step back to reevaluate what’s possible, what’s not likely, and what’s just not necessary. Too bad it’s harder to see the unreasonableness when I’m doing it to myself.

Leaving the country for a vacation on my birthday helped me cope with these feelings. Everything else can be going wrong or feeling impossible. But as long as I have an opportunity to get on a plane and be somewhere beautiful, there’s no way I can deny my good fortune. Last year it was Jamaica. And it was wonderful. All of those concerns about what I wasn’t accomplishing were temporarily suspended as I focused on catching up with friends and getting a tan.

And it was actually in Jamaica, brainstorming new ways to approach life, that I was inspired and motivated to make my idea of moving to Amsterdam into an actual plan. When discussing the unrealistic, silly idea that had recently been crossing my mind, I decided it wasn’t so crazy (with the encouragement of friends who also have nomadic spirits, of course).

Why not set goals that excite me and that I can control? Who says the life I see other people living at the age of 30 is the right life for me? The path I had been on had become so muddied with self-pity and regrets, it was time to find a new one anyway.

So I spent my 30th year trying to put some legitimate plans in place, with less focus on finding a husband and not forcing my current job and city to be the sum of my future. In all honesty, I was derailed and distracted one or two times by boy situations (it’s hard not to revert back to that old wishlist when I think I might have a chance at living that life I originally imagined). But the revised focus has definitely been a step in a very positive direction.

So here’s the deal: a year has passed and as I approach my 31st birthday, I’m sitting in the Dallas airport waiting to board a flight to Mexico. The desire to get away and experience beauty (and warmth) on my birthday still follows me. And I can’t pretend that the unsettled feeling and now 4 or 5 years of singledom doesn’t still bug me. Because it really does bug me. But instead of fighting it, I’m just recognizing it for what it is: a messy and imperfect process of living. I have left my complaints and frustration in NYC to be dealt with at another time. For now, I’m allowing myself to enjoy this escape and giving thanks that I have the ability to escape on yet another year. And hopefully in my 31st year, I’ll see this newer goal of moving to Amsterdam become a reality. Who needs a husband and a house, anyway? I hear it’s all more trouble than it’s worth.

Totally Honest Reasons I Chose Amsterdam

Not surprisingly, I am frequently asked, “why Amsterdam?” It’s a fair question. I have no family or friends there. I don’t speak Dutch. There are fewer black people than in Brooklyn. I have no way to make money there. I haven’t spent even a full day in Amsterdam. So yeah, fair question. In fact, it’s a wonder why more people don’t try to talk me out of it.

Here are a few of the most common reasons I typically cite when asked, as well as a few that typically go unmentioned:

It’s Centrally-located

I love to travel. Living in a country that’s a short flight or train ride away from so many others sounds dreamy. I could easily get to other European countries. And I’d be that much closer to anywhere in Africa. Plus, it’s close enough to NY to allow me to visit pretty easily. Never mind the fact that I won’t likely have much spending money. I see myself visiting London, Barcelona, Naples, Greek Islands, Casablanca, Cape Town. No limits!

Chemistry

I visited central Amsterdam while on a layover, returning from Ghana to NYC. Got off the plane and hopped on a train into the city. It was super early on a Sunday morning. As soon as I stepped out of the train station, I said (out loud), “I could live here.” Before I even laid eyes on some of the more beautiful parts of the city, I could sense its charm. It felt comfortable and strangely calming. No one rushing around and very little noise on the street. And on this Sunday morning, I appreciated the sleepy nature of the city. Very few stores were open and even fewer people were out (and some of them were clearly the previous night’s leftovers). The hours posted on most businesses indicated a much later opening time on Sundays. I can get down with a place that sleeps in on Sunday. Now in fairness, this actually did bug me a bit at the time because I was desperately searching for a meal. I was having more luck finding coffee shops than bagels. One coffee shop advertised “Free Breakfast!” Upon inquiring, the really nice man told me, “Oh I’m sorry. We’re all out of breakfast. But we have weed.” Regardless, I was charmed.

Coffee Shops

And yes, speaking of coffee shops…they are definitely worth considering. I’m not ashamed to admit that I happen to enjoy an herbal refreshment on occasion. It would be nice to live in a place that isn’t so uptight and paranoid about it. I imagine myself with a Sunday afternoon routine, including a bike ride and a good newspaper or magazine.

But I don’t want people to assume that this is the primary or only reason I would want to live in Amsterdam. Hopefully I get more credit than that.

English Friendly

I have the best of intentions to learn Dutch, I promise. But I fear it won’t come so easily. As I’m learning, language barriers won’t be an issue. Instead, I should be able to get around and involved pretty easily.

Bikes

I love the idea of bike parking lots. Amsterdam is, by far, the most bike friendly city I’ve ever been in. When I was a kid, I used to love riding my bike. But as an adult, I’ve never owned one. Living in a city where I would basically be peer-pressured into owning a bike would be a great influence on me. Exercise, fresh air, environmentally friendly…that’s the way to go. And everyone seemed so happy and calm on their bikes. This could, perhaps, be the solution to my road rage.

Flirts

Okay, this one is going to make me seem really shallow. But I’m being honest here, right? Although I constantly complain about being harassed by strange men on the street, I’d be lying if I said it’s not kinda flattering. Turning heads is not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling exhausted and dressed like a bum, several black men in Amsterdam still took notice. I remember thinking, “hm, they like black women with nappy hair here.” And since I’ll be traveling single, I’d prefer to live in a place where I am considered attractive. Wouldn’t anyone?


Spoiled Animals

Chubby cats on windowsills, dogs with fancy collars jogging alongside their owners’ bikes, and pet boutiques abound. I can vibe with any city that respects its animals. My spoiled cat and I could do pretty well in a place like that.